What is distinct about Kant's example of the shopkeeper in his discussion of morals?

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Kant uses the example of the shopkeeper to illustrate the importance of duty in acting morally. According to Kant, our actions only have moral worth if they're performed out of duty—if we only do something because it's the right thing to do. Neither impulse nor natural inclination can provide the...

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Kant uses the example of the shopkeeper to illustrate the importance of duty in acting morally. According to Kant, our actions only have moral worth if they're performed out of duty—if we only do something because it's the right thing to do. Neither impulse nor natural inclination can provide the basis for moral actions, even if they lead to a good outcome. This is an example of what's called a deontological system of ethics, which locates moral goodness in the acts themselves rather than in their consequences, as utilitarianism does.

In the example of the shopkeeper, it may be the case that he refrains from shortchanging his customers only because he doesn't want his business to suffer. If word got out that the shopkeeper is in the habit of shortchanging his customers, then fewer people would visit his shop, thus reducing his profits. So the shopkeeper decides not to shortchange his customers.

Although the outcome of the shopkeeper's actions are good—no one will be shortchanged—his actions themselves cannot be regarded as morally good according to Kant. This is because the shopkeeper isn't acting out of duty; he isn't refraining from shortchanging customers because it's the right thing to do. All he really cares about are the consequences, in this case: his profit margins. In other words, the shopkeeper did the right thing but for the wrong reasons.

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